Yesterday afternoon, I went to see the film, "The Devil's Miner" at MOMA. This is a devastating film about child labor in the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia. It is similar to the extremely popular film of last year, Born into Brothels, in depicting children whose situation seems hopeless and whose living and working conditions are nearly unimaginable to the average middle-class viewer. The focus in "the Devil's Miner" is Basilio Vargas, a fourteen year old boy who works 12 to 24 hour shifts in the silver mine of Cerro Rico,and is the primary bread-winner in his small family. We are told at the beginning of the film that this mountain in Bolivia, where silver mining has gone on since the time of Spanish colonialism, has killed 8 million miners, and thus is called "the mountain that eats men alive." Even when not killed by accidents, miners typically die in their 30s and 40s because of silicosis.
In keeping with the precariousness of the mines, the miners maintain shrines to "Tio," a horned god/devil, to whom they make sacrifices of coca leaves, liquor, blood, and cigarettes, asking for protection from mine accidents and praying for a strong vein of silver. At several points in the film, you see Basilio and his 12 year-old brother, Bernadino crouching in front of Tio in his special corner in the mine, chewing coca leaves talking about their fears of accidents. Strangely, even though Basilio tells Bernadino that Tio originated from the Spanish, who created him to force the Indios "who feared all kinds of different Gods" to go back to work after a major rebellion during the colonial days, he still believes in him, makes him offerings, and wants his younger brother to learn how to make offerings to Tio too.
Seeing these tiny boys travelling into the dark, rickety silver mines with their chisels and headlamps is simply heartbreaking. I thought that the evangelical free-marketeers should be forced to watch this movie with their eyelids propped open "Clockwork Orange" style, so that they might be sympathetic, if not to the plight of young children in the greedy maw of international capital, at least to what they would see as their immortal souls.
According to the web-page of Kinder Not Hilfe," a German aid organization dedicated to helping the children who work in the mines, there are about 6500 children working in the Cerro Rico mines today. This film, in addition to providing the privileged with a glimpse into the world that's supporting our excessive consumption, reveals the consequences of free-market economics. Why does Basilio have to work in the mine? Why, because his father died. With no male breadwinner, his family depends on his income. A society with a welfare state would prevent the desperation that leads 6000 little Basilios into the mines every year. Why does the mine still eat men? It's not because of copious profits. This particular mountain has long given up the majority of its silver, but it remains the best or perhaps, the only option for those miners' cooperatives who still go in day after day to the "antique" mines, hoping to scratch a living out of minimal amounts of precious metals. If Bolivia had not been forced into austerity reforms and privatization in the 1980s, perhaps those men in the mines would be working in farming villages or in craft collectives, like Basilio's father, who had been a blanket weaver. Why would anyone go into a spent mine to make a living if there were any other choice? Working in that mine is something like living on the edge of a garbage dump in Tijuana, only more dangerous.
While the film is moving and displays the tragedy of child labor in the mines, it does not provide enough economic context for most viewers to make sense of the problem. It would be easy enough to leave the film with the idea that groups like the US-based CARE, which tries to eradicate child labor by "educating" the poor about the importance of going to school, etc., are actually doing something useful.
However, for the curious, "The Devil's Miner" can lead to a search for background information, and does provide some context for the recent political victory of Evo Morales, which has been, as usual, poorly understood in the US.
Seeing the film made me want to know more about Bolivia, and the city of Potosi, which supported Morales. In my google-fest this morning, I learned that Potosi was also at the center of recent protests against water-privatization schemes that Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba describes here and in his "Blog from Bolivia." Also worth reading is Nick Buxton's "Open Veins" blog, which takes its title from Galleano's classic.